Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 24


James Spencer

The December 6 assassination of the recently-appointed governor of Aden, Major General Jaafar Mohammed Saad, as he drove to his office, marks the first major success by Islamic State in Yemen against the newly-returned government of Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi (al-Jazeera, December 7). It also marks a worrying step change in Islamic State capability.

The spectrum of attacks which al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) could mount was comparatively limited, especially when compared with those of al-Qaeda in Iraq. For the most part, rank and file al-Qaeda attacks (often via their tribal affiliate Ansar al-Shari’a) were basic small-arms assaults on isolated locations or close quarter assassinations on security force personnel. After 2008, AQAP increasingly used suicide improvised explosive devices (SIEDs) and suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). The core cadre of AQAP also used some very sophisticated devices in Timer Power Units (TPUs) such as the “printer bombs”, but also some VBIEDs; they also developed some very discrete SIED devices, either inside the underwear or in the body (Daily Telegraph, November 10, 2010; Reuters, January 7; ABC, December 28, 2008; CNN, September 2, 2009). These latter were command detonated by their bearers. There was one incident in which an under-vehicle improvised explosive device (UVIED) was used to murder a British shipping surveyor; however, this is assessed to have been criminal in nature, and probably involved a killer brought in from elsewhere, possibly from Lebanon or Syria (Daily Mail, June 29, 2012; BBC, June 28, 2012).

The Islamic State—which in Yemen was mostly formed by disaffected AQAP members—have similarly used small-arms fire attacks, as well as SIEDs, SVBIEDs and intimidation operations (Reuters, September 24; Independent, October 7; AP, October 25). Despite initial reports of the Islamic State attack on the Qasr hotel in al-Buraiqa and the UAE’s military HQ in Shaykh Farid al-Awlaqi’s palace being by rocket fire, the jihadist organization claimed it as four complex attacks, involving small-arms fire and SVBIEDs, which was soon confirmed by Yemeni sources (Gulf News, October 6; BBC, October 6).

What is significant about the December 6 attack is that it appears to mark a major technological—and indeed intelligence—shift. While the initial BBC report mentioned witnesses claiming to have seen an RPG, another report talks of an SVBIED: “[The Islamic State] says it detonated a car laden with explosives as [Saad] drove by” on his way to work (al-Quds al-Arabi, December 7; Reuters, December 6). Pictures of the burnt-out vehicle show that the roof above the front right (passenger) seat is more buckled than the opposite side, which would suggest that this was likely (Hadhrami Diaspora, December 6). The governor appears to have been riding in a B6 protected vehicle, and his protective security detail selected a route that had few parked cars along it, although it appears to have been a dual carriageway able to be traversed at speed. Nevertheless, and despite his new appointment, General Saad appears to have set a sufficient pattern that could be observed and exploited, possibly by a cell in Tawahi, which has become a terrorist sanctuary (Middle East Eye, December 7). It is likely that the Islamic State and AQAP have exploited the informal cooperation with the Saudi-led coalition to identify key personnel and reconnoiter locations (Wall Street Journal, July 16).

The area surrounding the site of the explosion appears to have been stone and concrete, with little scope to lay or dig in a command wire, nor have there been any such reports of a cable being found, suggesting that the means of initiation was remote control, most likely by mobile telephone (Haaretz, December 6). While there has been one report of an Explosively Formed Projectile being smuggled into Yemen (and intercepted), from the size of this explosion, it does not appear to have been a projectile, but merely explosive (New York Times, April 15, 2012). However, the Islamic State seem to have known that the governor’s vehicle was not a soft-skinned vehicle and so used a sufficiently large quantity of explosives to achieve the necessary blast effect against a protected vehicle. The one possible scrap of comfort is that the location chosen for the attack appears not to be very populous, which suggests that the terrorists are trying not to kill many local civilians. The main question remaining is—if it was a remote-controlled improvised explosive device (RCIED)—where did the technology come from, and what else do they have? It may yet get bloody.

James Spencer is a strategic analyst on political, security and trade issues of the Middle East and North Africa and a specialist on Yemen